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Wayne Eckerson

Welcome to Wayne's World, my blog that illuminates the latest thinking about how to deliver insights from business data and celebrates out-of-the-box thinkers and doers in the business intelligence (BI), performance management and data warehousing (DW) fields. Tune in here if you want to keep abreast of the latest trends, techniques, and technologies in this dynamic industry.

About the author >

Wayne has been a thought leader in the business intelligence field since the early 1990s. He has conducted numerous research studies and is a noted speaker, blogger, and consultant. He is the author of two widely read books: Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business (2005, 2010) and The Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights from Information Insiders (2012).

Wayne is currently director of BI Leadership Research, an education and research service run by TechTarget that provides objective, vendor neutral content to business intelligence (BI) professionals worldwide. Wayne’s consulting company, BI Leader Consulting, provides strategic planning, architectural reviews, internal workshops, and long-term mentoring to both user and vendor organizations. For many years, Wayne served as director of education and research at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) where he oversaw the company’s content and training programs and chaired its BI Executive Summit. He can be reached by email at weckerson@techtarget.com.

Universe.JPG

I've been reading the book, "The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos," by Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and well-known superstring theorist. I was startled in chapter 9 to read that the next dominant theme in physics is "information." In fact, he posits that the reality we experience in three-dimensions is actually a holograph driven by information on the "boundary surface" of space.

What he's talking about (I think) is something BI professionals know well. We call it metadata: the information that describes the data or facts of reality which we capture in our computer systems. Metadata drive applications (at least in the best designed systems), which execute tasks, such as capture orders, issue queries, and control inventory. In essence, metadata are the brains of applications that make action possible.

This seems to be what Greene is getting at. But I'll let him explain:

"During a lunch we had at Princeton in 1998, I asked [John Wheeler, one of the twentieth -century physics' most celebrated thinkers] what he thought the dominant theme in physics would be in the decades going forward. As he had already done frequently that day, he put his head down, as if his aging frame had grown weary of supporting such a massive intellect. But now the length of his silence left me wondering, briefly, whether he didn't want to answer or whether, perhaps, he had forgotten the question. He then slowly looked up and said a single word: 'information'...."

"Traditionally, physics focuses on things--planets, rocks, atoms, particles, fields--and investigates the forces that affect their behavior and govern their interactions. Wheeler was suggesting that things--matter and radiation--should be viewed as secondary, as carriers of a more abstract and fundamental entity: information. It's not that matter and radiation were somehow illusory; rather, he argued that they should be viewed as the material manifestations of something more basic. He believed that information--where a particle is, whether it is spinning one way or another, whether its charge is positive or negative, and so on--forms an irreducible kernel at the heart of reality. That such information is instantiated in real particles, occupying real positions, having definite spins and charges, is something like an architect's drawings being realized as a skyscraper. The fundamental information is in the blueprints. The skyscraper is but a physical realization of the information contained in the architect's design."

"From this perspective, the universe can be thought of as an information processor. It takes information regarding how things are now and produces information delineating how things will be at the next now, and the now after that. Our senses become aware of such processing by detecting how the physical environment changes over time. But the physical environment itself is emergent; it arises from the fundamental ingredient, information, and evolves according to the fundamental rules, the laws of physics."

This is astonishing. Greene is basically saying that the fundamental building block of the universe is not some particle, but information. And that information (as he explains later) exists outside our "reality"--on the boundary surface of our universe, as informed by research on black holes done by Stephen Hawking.

If this is true, then perhaps BI professionals have an intuitive feel for the inner working of the universe since we model reality in metadata to run applications and guide behavior. According to Greene, the Universe does likewise: it uses metadata to guide Earthly reality. Interesting!


Posted May 4, 2011 6:43 PM
Permalink | 8 Comments |

8 Comments

After listening to Bishop Berkeley's sermon on Immaterialism, the churlish Samuel Johnson was asked how he would refute. He kicked a rock with all of his might and broke his toe. "I refute it thusly." as told by Boswell.

I sort of agree with Johnson. There may be 13 dimensions in the universe, but how does it help me? On the other hand, I do believe that when I drop things, they fall into a parallel universe making it futile to look for them.

As for quantum physics and BI, I don't see the connection, but I do believe that 21st century thinking will become more quantum and less deterministic. It's only a shame I'll have lived most of my life in the century. As I approach my sell-by date, I can only imagine where that will all lead.

Neil Raden
Hired Brains

For a pithy illustration of why simplifying physics by everyday analogies causes problems see the incomparable Randall Munroe's recent post "Teaching Physics" at:

http://xkcd.com/895/

For more details on what the Holographic Principle is about, you can start with "The Font" at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holographic_principle

But probably starting to do a PhD in Physics would be a better bet.

All the best

Peter

You don't need a PhD in physics to understand the quote in my blog. Greene is describing metadata. He even uses an analogy of architectural blueprints, which I am sure you will agree is a form of metadata:

"That such information is. . . . something like an architect's drawings being realized as a skyscraper. The fundamental information is in the blueprints. The skyscraper is but a physical realization of the information contained in the architect's design."

BI professionals use metadata, too. Obviously, quantum metadata is different than application metadata, but conceptually they appear similar. That is the point I was making.

Wayne

Disclaimer first: I know nothing about physics, quantum or otherwise. And my response has very little to do with BI, although the point about the similarity with BI professionals is well-taken. (Having said that, have you noticed that, when a person starts a conversation with "I know this has nothing to do with me, but ..." it usually doesn't?)

Maybe I'm just too literal and/or simple to understand the jitters in the Matrix, but I just don't see it that way. It would imply that there is some universal repository of metadata, from where all "things" get their rules and are instantiated. I think the rules are more distributed: each "thing" knows and obeys its rules, and that's it. Furthermore, the things sometimes make up new rules as they interact with other things. So the metadata comes from the things, not the other way around. If not, the universal repository of metadata would somehow need to be updated when something goes wrong, and a rule doesn't work as well anymore.

I guess I need to watch the Matrix! Prior to the passage I quoted, Greene discussed "Plato's Cave" in which Plato likens earthly reality to shadows dancing a dimly lit cave wall. Plato believed everything on earth had an abstract form and earthly objects instantiated those forms. (My knowledge of Plato is limited, so I hope I'm relaying this properly.)So in this context, Plato (and I suspect Greene) would take issue with your idea that objects generate their own metadata. But quite possibly, there is a gray area, where an object inherits an abstract form but "individualizes" that form with unique, supplelmental characteristics.

Don't trivialize this! He's right; an enterprise comprises two elements - its infrastructure ('things') and its information. The latter is a commodity that travels around the enterprise describing what the enterprise has been doing (the 'physics' of the enterprise; its activity, much akin to a planet revolving around a star - or a company revolving around a customer).

True information management is not about the 'thing' that controls it (i.e. MDM applications, for example), but the discipline of using that information and the collection of the data that records what has happended in the enterprise.

Information management cannot be a static, centralized element of an enteprise, but spread about as a competency. Think of it as a language. English, for example. Now I know you're not going to like this (as PC has taken a grip on our perceptions) but the BBC produced the 'received pronounciation' version of English that was universal for communication by radio across the Empire (yes, I know...). That was the 'information management competency' of its day. Now listen to global English and wonder how a person in one place can understand another elsewhere if there is not a standard way of delivering English. That is our competency, based on our ability to process information as part of the core of our activities, or the 'physics' of what we are doing.

Right on, Wayne. I'm fascinated by this concept of Greene's as well. It's really just the next (crazy) step in a progression we've been seeing in recognizing the importance of information. The next question is, how much of the information controlling physical reality is stored "in the cloud"?

Jennifer,

I trust you are following the NOVA series on television. Much more accessible than Greene's book. This is really mind-bending stuff!

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